Demand is rising for Egyptian brews of alcohol-free beer both here and across the Arab world where Islam, the dominant religion, prohibits the consumption of booze.
Sales of a growing range of Muslim-friendly beer-style beverages have boomed since the first flows were canned eight years ago by Egypt's top brewer, Al-Ahram Beverages Co. (ABC), which still monopolizes domestic production.
Last year alone, sales soared 79 percent to 36.7 million liters (9.5 million gallons) from 20.5 million liters (5.3 million gallons) in 1998, according to economic analyst Karim Kamal of EFG Hermes investment bank.
And this year, ABC is expecting sales of its two brands -- Birell, brewed under license from Swiss firm Suisse Hurlimann, and fruit-flavored non-alcoholic beverage Fairouz -- to surpass sales of their numerous alcoholic beers which sold 39 million liters (10.1 million gallons) last year.
Steven Keefer, ABC director of investments, says the source of the success is "essentially religious," as the novel beverages do not infringe Islamic law.
"We are not in competition with soft drinks companies, because non-alcoholic beer is a more luxurious and expensive beverage," said Keefer whose company is registered on the Cairo and London stock markets.
And in terms of competition with regular beer, alcohol-free drinks have the advantage of avoiding Egypt's 100-percent alcohol tax and can thus be priced cheaper.
Building on its success, ABC recently secured the exclusive rights from Irish brewers Guinness to brew its non-alcoholic beer Kaliber and export it to 27 countries, most of them in the Arab world.
Egypt's long tradition of domestic beer production stretches as far back as the pharaohs and has been kept alive by the country's Coptic Christian minority.
But with the expansion of non-alcoholic products, the Egyptian drinks industry has been able to break into the markets of Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, where drinking alcohol is punished by whipping, and Kuwait.
Egypt supplied Saudi Arabia with four percent of its non-alcoholic beer imports in 1998, according to the Saudi central statistics bureau, while in Kuwait sales have been high since the government lifted an import ban in February, although figures are not yet available.
But products like Birell, Fairouz and Kaliber have not succeeded completely in avoiding the Muslim "beer" taboo, with Kuwait still requiring laboratory certificates from non-alcoholic beer importers after complaints that some brands did in fact contain a relatively high alcohol content -- CAIRO (AFP)
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